when i was a freshman at UT, i took a class called “interpersonal communications.” it was a popular class, and a large one to begin with–i think the auditorium held at least 500 students. my years at UT were depressing ones (in the most literal sense of the word), and although i found the lectures interesting, i didn’t attend the class very often. the only specific thing i remember about it was the day the professor asked a guy in the second row to stand up, turn around, and show everyone his t-shirt. it was a white t-shirt with the abbey road album cover on the front. the professor used it to illustrate a point of some sort.
my sophomore year, quite by accident, i met and became friends with the abbey road t-shirt guy, whose name was paul. paul and i lived in the same dorm, one floor apart, and he spent a lot of time in my room hanging out with my roommate and me. he was the only one of us who had a car, so we’d make trips to the grocery store in his two-seater–him in the driver’s seat, one person in the passenger seat, another person stretched out across both laps. it was difficult for the person sitting on the laps to make it through the whole trip without hitting her head on the windshield.
sophomore year was the worst of the two i spent at UT. during the spring semester, my friendship with my roommate was strained to the point that it couldn’t be considered a friendship anymore. she hung out with one of our suitemates and her friends quite often, but i was never invited along. in my worst moments of depression-induced paranoia i felt like my roommate and suitemate had banded together against me. by the time my birthday rolled around in may, i considered paul to be my only friend, or at least my only friend with whom there were no underlying tensions or resentments.
i spent my birthday at a lakeside coffeehouse with paul, my roommate, my suitemate, and a few of my suitemate’s friends. it was during finals, so we were only there for as long as everyone could stand being away from their studies, which wasn’t long. i remember thinking how sad it was to celebrate my birthday with a group of people most of whom i wasn’t sure even liked me. to call it a low point in my life thus far would be an understatement.
i asked paul if i could speak to him alone for a minute, and we went and sat at a table by the lake. i told him i was glad he’d come to my birthday. i told him i was glad i knew him. “this year’s been really awful,” i said to paul, “and i just wanted to thank you for being the only person here who’s always been truly and genuinely nice to me. i think this semester you’ve been my only friend.”
paul didn’t say anything for a few minutes. he looked uncomfortable, probably because having someone thank you for being their only friend can feel like a pretty heavy burden. but i’d wanted to say it. i felt better having said it. and i needed to feel better. we sat in silence, staring at the lake.
“things will be okay for you,” paul said finally. “do you remember what dr. daly said in interpersonal communications class about the four reasons why people spend time with one another?”
“no,” i said.
“proximity, attraction, utility, and loneliness,” he said.
“that was over a year ago,” i said. “how can you remember that?”
“because,” he said. “Proximity, Attraction, Utility, Loneliness. paul.”
i’m not sure why paul decided that that would be a good time to tell me about the four reasons why people spend time with one another, but i’ve never forgotten it. i can still remember the exact tone of his voice, and the look on his face.
the first time i really thought about those four reasons, they made me sad. proximity made sense, of course–we’re more likely to meet and talk with people we see at work or school or near our homes. loneliness made sense, too. but utility? people hang out just so they can use each other? and did attraction mean that we only want to spend time with people we find physically attractive? it seemed a pretty grim assessment.
since then i’ve decided that attraction encompasses both physical attraction and the often-platonic attraction we feel towards people we get along with, towards those who share our interests. i’ve come to terms with utility, too–after all, paul would drive us to the store and i’d help him with his spanish homework, but that didn’t mean we were using each other, not in the negative sense of the word.
no, the one that bothers me now is loneliness.
i mean, of course i understand the feeling of loneliness. and like everyone else, i’m lonely much more often than i care to admit. but loneliness is a visceral item on an otherwise intellectual list; unlike proximity or attraction or utility, loneliness cannot be quantified or rationally explained. the existence of such a list, however, would seem to indicate that our very human need to spend time with other humans is something that can be rationally explained. in that sense, loneliness is out of place on the list. it almost begs the question. “why do people spend time with other people?” “because they want to.”
throughout our lives we meet hundreds of thousands of people. some of those people we only meet in passing, but some become our friends or lovers or partners or spouses–people who alleviate our loneliness. those people don’t always stick around, either. old friends make way for new friends, old lovers for new ones. if we’re lucky we’ll have just one partner or spouse, but that doesn’t always happen. in the course of our lives, in other words, our loneliness is alleviated by many different people. for example, paul and i don’t hang out anymore, but that’s okay, because i have other friends to hang out with.
i’m going to quote a passage from one of my favorite books, faulkner’s as i lay dying. in this quote addie bundren, a dead woman, is talking about her relationship with her husband, anse. the emphasis is mine:
He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear.
i think about that phrase pretty often: “a shape to fill a lack.” but i think about it in terms of people rather than words, like this: loneliness is an innate human characteristic, defined as the longing a person feels when he or she is lacking human companionship. and as i said before, this lack of human companionship can be, and is, filled by many different people over the course of an individual lifetime. so are these people, these loneliness-alleviators, fundamentally interchangeable? is a friend or lover or partner or spouse just “a shape to fill a lack?”
now that, my friends, is a grim assessment. because if that’s true, if the people in our lives are thusly interchangeable, it renders all human relationships pretty mundane, doesn’t it? i’m not a big believer in fate, but i’ve always liked to think that there’s someone out there i’m meant to be with. on a lesser level i’ve often thought there were people i was meant to be friends with, too. if that’s not the case, i’m going to be pretty upset.
Sometimes I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquify and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar.